EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nation believes that helping readers stay informed about the impact of the coronavirus crisis is a form of public service. For that reason, this article, and all of our coronavirus coverage, is now free. Please subscribe to support our writers and staff, and stay healthy.
“It is a kind of divine reprimand, a divine decree against humanity,” the thickly accented voice on the phone told me on March 17, 2020.
At first, his words sounded like a predictable response to the coronavirus disaster from a religious zealot—like the sermons of fundamentalists who saw in HIV epidemics or September 11 God’s redress for moral impiety. But the person I was speaking to by phone from my isolated mountain home in Colorado saw a different kind of retribution at play: “It is a kind of punishment” he continued, “for globalization.”
Russian philosopher and political operative Alexandr Dugin thinks in unusual ways. Labeled imprecisely as a right-wing extremist, a neo-fascist, or a populist, he is instead apt to identify with the inconspicuous label of “Traditionalism.” In other words: He sees himself as fighting against the entirety of the modern world.
Traditionalism is a radical doctrine—so radical that scholars of the far right like myself had often dismissed it as an obscure curiosity devoid of high-level political consequence. Some of its early right-wing adherents believed a race of ethereal Aryans once lived in the North Pole, and advocated establishing a celibate patriarchy of warrior-priests in place of democracy. It often sounds more like make-believe than politics; Dungeons and Dragons for racists, as a former student of mine once put it.
But dismissing Traditionalism is no longer an option, now that Dugin and his ilk are gaining exceptional influence throughout the globe. These ideologues infused a major political party in Hungary, Vladimir Putin’s government, and later Donald Trump’s and Jair Bolsonaro’s administration through figures like Steve Bannon and Olavo de Carvalho, a renegade astrologer and philosopher who advises the Brazilian government on foreign and domestic policy.
I have been speaking with them for nearly two years while researching my book War for Eternity, and have watched as they tried (struggled) to collaborate in advancing a vision stranger than mere nationalism or populism, broader than the fate of any one nation. But some now see the coronavirus as offering them a rare opportunity for advance.
They, of course, are not alone. Dissident voices of various kinds regard the current crisis as a potential watershed moment introducing a new set of risks and rewards, winners and losers. Its trials will play out in our personal routines, but also by testing and reordering broader societal and political forms. Liberalism won the battles of the twentieth century, we are often told. Democracy, individualism, the free movements of people, goods, and money seemed the best method to establish safety, stability, and wealth. But what about the world we have entered—a world where domestic production and social isolation are virtues? What ideology is poised to benefit from this?
Always with a capital T, Traditionalism fuses the teachings of select religious faiths to condemn the modern world on account of its secularism and lack of all kinds of borders and boundaries. It was originally a philosophical and spiritual school, its primary patriarch having been a French convert to Islam named René Guénon (1886–1951), though Traditionalism was radicalized and carried into reactionary politics by an Italian thinker and Mussolini collaborator named Julius Evola. It sees time as moving in cycles rather than linearly, from a Golden Age to a Dark Age of collapse, and abruptly back to gold again, on and on.
Save for a transitory moment of cataclysm, time is equal to destruction in this view, and past, present, and future lose their meaning in a cycle where our history is also our destiny. Meanwhile, the decline of society according to Traditionalism pertains to the spread of materialism and homogenization at the expense of spirituality and hierarchy (that also explains why Traditionalism cultivates an uncommon apocalyptic yearning.)
If during the Golden Age society is stratified, and different people follow separate social and religious paths, the rise of darkness entails the complete breakdown of difference and a leveling of global humanity in pursuit of its basest wants. It is the fusion of these beliefs and their association with cyclicity that separates Traditionalists on the right from more mainstream religious conservatives like Ross Douthat. Indeed, latter-day Traditionalists use this lens to regard globalism and the seemingly chaotic circulation of money, goods, power, and peoples as tokens of a decadent secularism and a sign that collapse—and with it a turning of the ages—is near.
That’s how Steve Bannon sees it, at least. I spoke with the former campaign chairman and special adviser to Donald Trump during an opening in his schedule, now dominated by activities related to the coronavirus outbreak (he has been hosting a daily radio program devoted to the topic since January 25). What we are witnessing now, he claims, is the turning of this Dark Age—the Kali Yuga, as he calls it, referring to Hinduism’s account of cyclic time. The signs of this are a convergence of three imminent catastrophes:
“You have a massive pandemic. Two, you have an economic crisis, and part of that is these perturbations of travel and service economy, that’s horrific, but then deeper you have a systemic issue, one is the supply chain—we don’t make any of the medicines here, we don’t make any of the gloves. But deeper than that is the globalization project, that we have essentially shipped everything to China, the manufacturing. We don’t make anything. So we have this system that can collapse quite quickly. And now we’ve triggered something that might be far bigger than the first two: We’re in a financial firestorm, a financial crisis.”
The crashing economy, he explains, is born of liquidity and solvency problems. Underlying it all is “globalization”: in his view, the inability of states to erect meaningful borders regulating movement of people and the production of goods.
Alexandr Dugin speaks in similar terms, though at times with glee piercing through. “The present cosmic cycle is approaching its end.” He knew that the turning was approaching, he tells me; the reign of democracy, the inability of most political systems to debate anything other than material wealth, the loss of community born of mass migration. The coronavirus pandemic has simply laced our already-chaotic channels of exchange with poison.
Dugin is often described as a major influence on Putin’s expansionist foreign policy. He has seldom held an official position in government, and plenty of his actions have been buffoonish and kooky. But his books and commentary have saturated Russia’s military intelligentsia for decades—like Bannon, his impact on politics is easily over- and underestimated. Traditionalism inspired Dugin to fight modernity through geopolitics and conventional warfare, deeming his native Russia and Eurasia a bastion of Tradition, and the United States the vessel of devilish globalism. In addition to tracts offering philosophical and spiritual justifications for rejecting liberalism, he has also used protest and diplomacy to push Russian military incursion in Georgia and Ukraine, and increased union among Russia, Turkey, Iran, and China.
The goal is to break the worldwide hegemony of the United States, he explains. It is to do away with the homogenizing impact of centralized political and cultural rule, and instead allow for a fragmenting of the globe into bounded, local communities. There could be echoes of left-wing anti-imperialism and cultural relativism in their rhetoric—were it not also infused with contempt for democracy, a spiritual devotion to precedent, and transparent alignment with the expansionist ambitions of a military state.
It’s surprising, then, that Dugin and Bannon have been attempting to collaborate, and met in secrecy in Rome in November 2018. Dugin and Bannon may represent opposing interests at the level of national politics, but they also recognized a deeper bond as two Traditionalists who emerged into power independently of each other at roughly the same historical moment. Their communications have nonetheless related to geopolitics: Bannon has been lobbying Dugin to switch his allegiances and embrace the United States, to use his platform of soft but powerful influence to advocate Russia’s return to the Judeo-Christian West and rejection of China.
The effort is less formal and public than Bannon’s ill-fated “Movement”; that might make it all the more auspicious. And its motivations are also professional: Bannon is being paid richly by fugitive Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui to undermine the Communist Party of China on all fronts, but this blunts Bannon’s potential partnership with Dugin. The Russian philosopher regards the United States as essentially and forever a progressive, imperial, liberal state, whereas Bannon believes the country is possessed of a deeper, premodern core. And their various agreements and disagreements are now motivating divergent responses to the coronavirus outbreak.
Bannon’s early attention to the virus (a welcome alternative to initial dismissal of the pandemic on Fox News and other conservative media) derived from his focus on China. He claims to have had insight in 2019 into the turmoil in Wuhan during the discovery and attempts to mitigate the virus. His messaging since has often stuck to straightforward reporting, coupled with praise for politicians who were taking the cause seriously (mostly Democratic governors, in fact). But he has not been shy to place blame for the outbreak on the CCP, calling it not the “Chinese virus” as Trump has done but the “Communist Party virus.”
The Sinophile Dugin, who has lived intermittently in Shanghai, speaks in no such terms. He tells me, “We see now that, dealing with the coronavirus, the first reaction is to return from globalization to more concrete local society. It is a refusal of the liberal dogmatism that markets and openness could solve everything.” This, according to Dugin, places onus on the West to abandon secularism, embrace the collective (read the state) over the individual, and stasis over movement. And while he stopped short of celebrating the mass pandemic that is killing tens of thousands throughout the globe, he nonetheless praised the coronavirus’s ability to clarify what he sees as truth: “America must choose now between life and liberalism.”
When I relay some of this to Bannon, he pushes back. The West is going to come out on top, he says, sounding like a typical American conservative. Our social model of open, free society will produce more innovation to address the crisis, while China’s dictatorship will lose legitimacy for its cover-ups and corruption. Echoes of Dugin and standard Traditionalism reemerged, however, as Bannon began to describe what reforms needed to be taken now. “Shut it all down,” he says. “Take draconian action.… when you have to go through hell, go through it as fast as possible.” Enforce prohibitions on movement and commerce, in other words: Free and open societies may make it out on top, but not by being free and open.
Before long, our conversation is about the ways rootless, soulless, individualism is going to be punished by death, and where bold action of the strongman and the collective, and reverence for history personified by mobilization on behalf of our elders, will be rewarded. Sensing that he felt some reverence for the moment, I asked, “Will we be at a better place, on the other side?”
He took a rare pause before speaking, slowly. “We’ll be in a different place. I think it will be the beginning of us getting to a better place.… I think you’ll have a much more united, a stronger sense of community when we’ve come through this, because the only way we’re going to come through this is the sense of community. We’ve all got to pull together in this thing, or we’re not all going to get through it. I think we’ll see that. “
Yes, he sees something to be gained here. As for Dugin? His parting words to me were revealing: “The virus is a sign of the end of times.”
“Did he mean ‘end times’?” I thought to myself, starting to edit Dugin’s effective but broken English in my mind. But moments after I hung up with him I realized he may have been making a deliberate Traditionalist reference to an end of our faith in progress and integration—that our experiment of crafting a world increasingly free and interconnected is receiving a brutal rebuke; that we will soon learn to give up on progress, on history or “time,” and a return to a more virtuous eternity. I don’t think he is the only one, in that case.